Vietnam War vs. Great Society
Anonymous: “[Johnson] had miscalculated: Even the richest and most powerful nation in the world could not do it all” (qtd. in Turbulent Years: The 60s 36). Lyndon Baines Johnson is a president torn to pieces by war. He glows in the passage of bills benefiting American society. He is someone who has suffered through an entire generation of rebellious teens. What impact did LBJ’s foreign policies concerning Vietnam War have on American society?
The Vietnam War really isn’t a war. Congress never declared war and thus, it is constitutionally considered police action. The United States can have troops in an area for ninety days, but how ninety days became twelve long, bloody years is beyond my knowledge. The war actually started in 1959, but U.S. involvement did not start until 1961. We withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, and it raged on for another two years. This was Vietnam’s civil war, where 58,000 Americans lost their lives and Vietnam was lost to the Communists.
If it hadn’t been for the French-Indochina War, America might not have been so deeply involved in Vietnam. The area of Indochina, present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, was taken away from France during the Second World War and afterwards, they tried to get it back. France lured the U.S. into paying 80% of the costs used to fight Ho Chi Minh and Communist North Vietnam by the end of the French-Indochina War. As author Gini Holland put it, “This [paying the costs] committed the United States financially, although not yet militarily, to the region” (qtd. in Holland 41). So, when Vietnam was into their civil war, the U.S. felt the need to help South Vietnam. In addition to fighting Communism, the American soldiers faced the very devoted and very martial Vietcong, the pro-Communist guerilla force of South Vietnam. Look what a little help to a friend can do to you.
“It was in Southeast Asia that [Johnson] ran into his greatest difficulties” (qtd. in Encarta “Johnson, Lyndon Baines”). He finished John F. Kennedy’s term starting in 1963 and completed another term, ending his presidency in 1969. As many of us are, he was reluctant to get fully involved in the war. After ordering air strikes against North Vietnam in retaliation for U.S. ships being attacked by torpedoes, he stated, “We will seek no wider war” (qtd. in Hargrove 69). Even though he did not want war, his peaceful policy concerning it was widely protested by the country.
While there was a war in Vietnam, there were several wars at home, of which included Johnson’s wars on poverty and racial segregation. Even before Johnson became president, he had visions of a perfect society (Turbulent Years 67). When he did become president, he pushed as many of those ideas through Congress as possible. For instance, several medical aid and civil rights bills went into Congress and were approved. This was the crowning glory of Johnson’s presidency.
Unfortunately, the Vietnam War ate a lot of government money and some of the Great Society bills just couldn’t get through because of money problems. “Guns and butter,” Johnson said, “should both be funded by Congress” (qtd. in Rubel 179). He was met with a lot of resistance because people rendered that idea impossible. It was obvious to everyone that the Great Society was much more important to Johnson than the Vietnam War. He was willing to leave the war to develop the Great Society, but by the time he voiced that feeling, he had pushed the war to a point of no return.
Many ordinary Americans saw from the start that we could not possibly win Vietnam for the South Vietnamese. It was regarded as a “no-winner” (Encarta IV, C). Even so, we supported South Vietnam with containment, which was the Cold War policy of keeping Communism within its borders, instead of trying to get rid of it. Unlike the Korean War, we fought to keep South Vietnam, but we did not fight to gain control of North Vietnam.
Why did we go to war if we thought it was such a “no-winner?” The American people succumbed to the war because of Johnson’s feeble cover-up explanations. For example, he stated on March 31, 1968: “?The heart of our involvement in South Vietnam?has always been America’s own security” (qtd. in Frazier 286). In any case, people realized what he was doing and started learning the truth.
Johnson gained more powers and the death list grew longer and longer as the war progressed. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution bestowed upon President Johnson war-making powers until Vietnam had restored peace. In 1964, no one knew it, but the war would continue for about another decade. During that timeframe, people concluded that his foreign policy caused our involvement in Vietnam (Annals of America 552). The public then doubted his decisions and became impatient as he walked in circles, suspending bombings on North Vietnam, asking for negotiations, being denied, continuing the bombings, and the cycle just never seemed to end. By the time he left office, peace talks were underway, but he didn’t live to see the results (”LBJ Library Online” 11). Johnson may have gained power, but at the cost of public support.
“As the death toll grew, so did the protests,” said Michael Schuman (qtd. in Schuman 78). Protests took all different forms during the 1960s. Young men burned draft cards, there were a number of rallies in the Pentagon, and also in several other major cities. One such instance occurred on March 31, 1966, where more than 20,000 people gathered on Fifth Avenue in New York (Schuman 78). In these protests, police used tear gas and rubber pellets to disperse the crowd. Sometimes, people were killed or seriously injured and really, this only spurred more protest.
The largest generation was well named- baby boomers. Because of World War II, people put off having children, so after the war, they made up for lost time. The baby boomers were, in addition to being a well-sized generation, the most ardent antiwar group. They took up symbols that represented peace and resistance against the war. One of their signs was the flower, as they symbolize peace. Back in the day, the word “hep” meant anyone who was aware of the newest fashions (Turbulent Years 137). Soon the word became “hip” and those people came to be called hippies. These people went against tradition, with wild fashion, wild music, and togetherness. The feeling of being together and having someone behind your back really spurred the antiwar movement to a point where even the sky didn’t seem to be a limit. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and “Hell no, we won’t go” were as symbolic of the hippies as the “Star-Spangled Banner” is symbolic of America.
Of course, the hippie movement couldn’t go without punishment. The World War and Korean War veterans thought that the actions of the hippies were unpatriotic. This caused riots in the streets alongside the civil rights riots (Schuman 90). Hippies thought that they were simply exercising the rights given to them by the First Amendment. Instead, the veterans thought that they went to war to protect a bunch of whiny wimps. Also, hippies found the flag fashionable, while the veterans saw the flag as the symbol of what they protected fighting an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is obvious that a war between countries cause wars among own their people.
When the hippie generation was in full swing, a new media tool was born: live footage. Instead of just reports on what was happening in Vietnam, Americans got the full deal. Reporters covered everything from the protest suicides of Buddhist monks to the executions of suspected enemy officers (Turbulent Years 114). Sometimes, they even caught soldiers gunning down innocent victims. This only helped the antiwar movement. Also, the opinion of television anchors had a great impact on the American public. “When [Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor] spoke out against the war on national television, Johnson lost hope of maintaining public support” (qtd. in Holland 47). From then on, news on television carried a greater impact than ever before.
If television broadcasted the passing of the Great Society bills, the news on Vietnam overrode them by far. The antiwar movement also overturned the joy of the passage of the bills (”History Channel Online” 6). Johnson passed many bills similar to ones previous presidents attempted to pass, but failed. For example, he signed the Medicare bill, giving medical aid to the elderly, with former President Harry S Truman present, as he was unable to pass the bill (Califano 370). Other bills included Medicaid, which gave medical aid to the poor, the Civil Rights Bill, making segregation illegal, and the Voting Rights Bill, which abolished poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. These bills helped gain public support for the war. I think Johnson can rightfully be considered a president who really did a lot for his countrymen.
Although the Great Society doesn’t exist, much of Johnson’s work in the Sixties has not gone away. Today, the middle-aged can look forward to benefits from Medicare and those in financial need can look up to Medicaid for help. All races can appreciate the abolition of legal segregation. Segregation can never be cured, only improved. Even so, Johnson did think for everyone when he drew up the civil rights bills (Califano 277). Everyone in America, poor or rich, young or old, white or not, has something to thank Lyndon Baines Johnson for.
The rebellion of the baby boomers against Johnson inspired Generation X to rebel. Against their parents, at least. We may be the children of tomorrow, but we live to the standards?our standards, that is. Like the hippies, we dress “fashionably,” with the hip fashions: flares from the 70s, flower socks from the 60s, hemp necklaces representative of Woodstock, etc. But since the coining of the term “Generation X,” many have defied that stereotype by showing that with willpower, we can do it. President Johnson once said, “?your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America?” (Holland 40). And so we are.
Yes, Johnson did let Vietnam fall to the Communists, but what about Cuba? It fell to Communism in the 1950s when dictator Fidel Castro took power. Many people asked why we were fighting Communism an ocean away when it was only ninety miles from Key West (Annals of America 553). To this day, Cuba remains Communist and many Cubans have fled to America for asylum. What will happen if there are too many Cubans in Florida? Will one of them become dictator of America? It is better to pretend they never will, but it is reality to contemplate the idea.
We practice restricted foreign aid nowadays, to keep ourselves out of trouble. Johnson thought being in South Vietnam would bring world peace because countries would look to us for protection (Frazier 284). That’s not quite true, but we don’t want to offer too much help, in case we should be pulled into another war like Vietnam. Since we can learn from mistakes, we obviously learned from Johnson’s errors that maybe too much help could be bad.
The Great Society was the jewel of his era, the Vietnam War, the shattering of his image. The Vietnam War took a great bite out of the Great Society and left it a paraplegic, but triumphing spirit. “Johnson will probably be remembered as a president who faithfully reflected the country’s greatness and limitations,” concluded Professor Robert Dallek (qtd. in Dallek 628). From the turbulence of the 1960s, we have moved on, through high and low, sweet and sour, and have yet to give up. Said LBJ, thoughtfully, “We move step-by-step- often painfully?-along the path toward American freedom” (Schuman 73).
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Hargrove, Jim. Lyndon B. Johnson. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1987
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Monk, Linda R., ed. Ordinary Americans. USA: Close Up Foundation, 1994
Schuman, Michael A. Lyndon B. Johnson. Springfield: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998
The Annals of America: Vol. 18. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1976
Turbulent Years: The 60s. USA: Time Life Inc., 1998